From the very top Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell nails its aesthetic. Taking stylistic cues from Blade Runner, Star Wars, Minority Report and company, the artistry on display here really is quite something. There is, however, a ‘but’ coming. For all of its fairground marvels – holographic advertisements, ultra-sleek black cars, neon lights – the world of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, by contrast to the classic anime of 1995 and the manga serials before it, never quite grasps enough of a sense for the visceral and is thus never able to totally escape a feeling of artificiality.
The concept of the film’s root inspiration is a high one, the popularity of Mamaru Oshii’s feature being indeed in the nature of both its animation and intellectuality staying with audiences some time after their inaugural experience. At the narratival core is the Major, here brought into live action by Scarlett Johansson, a cerebrally realised cyborg of synthetic form and human brain who leads Section 9’s squad of law enforcers. The setting for this CSI:Sci-fi action is a cyberpunk vision of the future, 2029 in the original but here left wisely ambiguous, in which our descendants’ dependence on technology is so far gone that their society is no longer so clearcut as to be determined recognisably human. While the Major represents the next level, as solely (and soul-y) the brain in a host body (a ghost in a shell), almost all in the city have been ‘enhanced’ is some way or another, be it with new eyes or skeletally arachnid robotic hands and fingers. Furthermore, most are linked to an interface network, rendering them vulnerable to viruses and hacking, computerised weaknesses for the technological age.
When an unknown enemy begins to utilise said network to commit murder, through hacked robot Geishas, and attack the corporation behind the intelligence software on which the world relies, it is the Major and her team who begin the hunt. In this latest adaption however, adding to its predecessor, Johansson’s Major must also come to terms with a lingering unease in her own corporeal shell and the questions that underlie her entire existence, those of who she is and where she comes from. The themes of the franchise and deep and challenging, questioning the nature of the human spirit amid, in that very eighties theme (the first publication was in 1989), an increasingly technotopic society.
Whereas Oshii made no attempts to condescend his audience via simplification in 1995, creating a film almost too intelligent for its own good, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is very much the more translucent adaption. As lines like ‘What we do is what defines us’ clunk, others like ‘How do you know what’s a glitch and what’s me?’ lay out the plot so broadly that it’s hard not to assume that a crisis in confidence during the script-writing process led to a panic that western audiences would find anything less heavy-handed far too confusing. Unfortunately, whilst elucidation isn’t inherently a bad thing, here it renders the enterprise somewhat dull at times, certainly so in comparison to the original, losing in the translation much of the story’s engaging uncertainty and intrigue.
In spite of the script, Saunders’ cast just about manage to maintain individuality and integrity in their characterisations; on the other hand, the ‘whitewashing’ controversy that pervades them is an inevitable distraction from the strength of their talents. The choice to give the lead to Johansson is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a shame that the film is marred so but, at the same time, it is in equal measure a flaw and crucial misjudgement. Weighing into the debate, Oshii has dismissed the criticism as moot, the Major existing in an artificially constructed model, instead praising Johansson for her cyberpunk vibe, whilst the actress herself has concurred, accusing this reaction of distracting from the success that is having a female-led genre film make it to the big screen. Both responses are reasonable, but far from infallible. What irks about the whole affair is that it would have been so easy for the production to subvert the critique and integrate it into the plot itself. That they do not, leaving the subject untouched, ruins moments of poignancy with an unironic replay of the gag in Kung Fu Panda in which Po is shocked to discover that the Chinese Goose that he’s grown up with is not actually is biological father. It would be wrong to overstate the role of Ghost in the Shell in the wider schema of ‘whitewashing’ however the issue is undeniably the film’s own elephant in the shell.
Politics aside, said problem ingrained more in the expansive context of Hollywood, Johansson is in fact a good choice for the part. As a character plagued with identity crises, overwhelmed by technology, and eerily uncanny in her relationship with human life, in many ways the Major is familiar ground for the Avengers, Lucy, and Under the Skin star. Uncomfortable in her own cybernetic body, Johansson stalks around on screen with a bulky movement reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator via Kevin the Teenager, embodying more of a Shelley Frankenform than the sleek and alluring one of Alicia Vikander from Ex Machina. Whereas Alex Garland’s latter film unnerved with a visual panoptic so metallically clean, Sanders aims for something grubbier but never quite grasps it. The effect is a world that feels too unsullied an artifice to warrant investment. Initially the Major’s exoskeleton is surreally fragmented, reminding of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s disturbing puppets from Anomalisa, but once the seams fade, Johansson is indistinguishable on sight alone from any other skin-tight-suit-wearing blockbuster action hero. Similarly, awash with lights, skylines and oddly unblemished roads, the city itself at times feels more like an advert for ‘Hot Wheels’ than a hot bed of crime. It works best, ironically, when bereft of focus, providing an indistinct blur of a canvas to the foregrounded plot. A boat scene late on in the film, for example, marks a turning point when the ‘ghost’ finally becomes more interesting than its ‘shell’; which is to say, the plot at last provokes interest.
Too much of the film’s overlong runtime flickers instead of bursting aflame. Even when things do get more interesting, a shot of Johansson floating among jellyfish providing the first real glimpse of an astuteness to themes of motional will and control, the flow remains somewhat inconsistent, driven as the film is by the self-imposed need to resolve the story, whilst setting up the potential for sequels.
There is a type of cineaste who will enter Ghost in the Shell predetermined to dislike it on the sole premise that it is not the foreign language anime original – even if it does feature a terrific, and entirely Japanese-speaking, performance from Beat Takeshi, one of the minority in the cast actually native to the country. Ghost in the Shell is not a bad film, it’s just never a great one. There’s promise and decent execution but it’s just not enough to form a wholly satisfying experience.